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Maywood, IL is half a world away from Nigeria, but Anthony Ochiabutor sees a direct connection between the lessons he's learning at the Cook County District 4 Courthouse and the problems facing the African country he calls home.
As a student in the Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution (MCR) program, he says he's gaining the skills and experience needed to make a difference for the people of his home country, which continues to struggle with religious and ethnic strife. His hope is to serve as an elder, helping bring opposing forces in Nigeria together in conversation.
"When there is conflict, there is bound to be no resolution as long as the two sides are not talking. We have to get people to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other," he says.
Ochiabutor sees an example of the power of conflict resolution in South Africa. Key to the end of the country's Apartheid was Nelson Mandela’s initiation of reconciliation and a national conversation around race among previously divided groups of people.
“People were not talking to each other," he says. "It took a leader such as Mandela to get them talking, and that is the role of the mediator in any conflict.”
Despite working "more than full-time" as the owner of a real estate company, Ochiabutor says the hybrid format of online classes and in-person seminars have both allowed him to fit the program into his schedule and helped him in his day-to-day work.
“Not only does it help me as a community leader, but it helps me in my real estate practice. I have brokers who work below me, and the lessons of the program apply to managing relationships within the office as well,” he says.
Ochiabutor says he's benefited from the mediation experience his instructors bring to the classroom. Faculty teaching in the MCR program come from careers working in conflict resolution in corporate settings, international association and the National Mediation Board, an independent federal agency responsible for mediating labor disputes in the rail and airline industries.
"Their experience goes beyond what’s in the textbook. They coach you and tell you what you’re going to see in the field," he says.
Beyond the classroom, Ochiabutor is one of a group of MCR students working at the courthouse as student mediators, responsible for mediating disputes between landlords and tenants that otherwise would result in costly court proceedings before a judge.
“Since we’ve started the partnership with the court system, the judges’ case loads have decreased. Cases like this take hours when they go before a judge, so the collaboration between the school and the court system works well," says Matt Hlinak, JD, assistant provost for continuing education.
In addition to easing the burden on the court system, the benefits of the partnership extend to the parties and the student mediators themselves.
"For the students, this is experience you cannot get sitting in a classroom. We’re dealing with real cases here—landlords and tenants, people who are about to lose their homes," Ochiabutor says. "When you have this type of agreement, you see people getting to stay in their homes, and you see landlords getting the rent that they otherwise would not get. You can see the real impact it has on people's lives."